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Devonport, New Zealand: Auckland's must-visit ferry suburb

Published
October 31, 2020
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DEVONPORT, New Zealand, is an attractive old suburb on Auckland's North Shore, a short ferry ride from downtown. This map of ferry routes shows Devonport as truly one of the most inshore destinations.

Map data (c)2020 Google. North at top.

Devonport (Auckland) the most important base of the Royal New Zealand Navy. And before that the Royal Navy's New Zealand Squadron.

Whence its name, which is the same as that of the headquarters of the Royal Navy near Plymouth, in Devon.

The Naval Docks at Devonport (NZ) in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Light cruisers HMS Dunedin (sunk 1941 in the Atlantic) and Diomede are in front, HMS Veronica and Laburnum (scuttled in Singpore in 1942) behind, with HMS Philomel about to be overflown by a Fairey IIIF floatplane. From the L. M. Isitt collection of the Royal New Zealand Air Force Museum, image ALB862456012, CC-BY-ND 3.0 NZ.

These days, the suburb's something of a hedonistic getaway. The old official and semi-official buildings have been repurposed into bars and cafes and offices, though the base is still there.

The result is that Devonport has become to Auckland like what Fremantle is to Perth, Australia. Except that it's a lot easier to get to. The shopping district is really classy, with a nice little brick-lined arcade. (By the way, one day I'll get a proper camera and stop trying to take mobile phone snaps indoors.)

Devonport's actually one of the oldest suburbs in Auckland.

And so, it's famous not only for its downtown but also for its antique wooden houses in the back streets, which have a ton of character everywhere you turn.

And its beaches too, such as the east-facing Cheltenham Beach, which is probably the best.

Cheltenham Beach faces the symmetrical volcano of Rangitoto Island. That's why it's the best beach in Devonport!

But the beaches on the south side of the peninsula, which face Auckland City., are still pretty good. The next two photos are taken on top of one of the two extinct volcanoes on Devonport peninsula, North Head, looking westward toward the other, Mount Victoria. They show how close downtown Auckland is.

Incidentally,these two peaks have Māori names, Maungauika and Takarunga respectively, lately co-official with the European ones. The wider locality on which Devonport has been built also has a Māori name itself, Te Hau Kapua. I will discuss those names further below, in the context of the new Māori-themed library of Devonport. The Māori heritage of the area was long submerged by the fact that Devonport was such an important British colonial outpost. But it is coming back.

There's a great view of the neollassical Auckland War Memorial Museum from one of these south-facing beaches. Peeping behind the museum to its right is Auckland Grammar School, in Spanish Mission style. Auckland was quite classy before the motorways went in. The great extinct volcano of Maungawhau / Mount Eden is behind.

In the following view you can see North Head from one of the south-facing beaches. The road behind the beach is called King Edward Parade.

On King Edward Parade there's also a monument to the Maori discovers of Auckland, erected in 1959, with plaques both in English and Māori. The apparently weeping bird on top is one of the few traditional Maori motifs that is naturalistic and not stylised.

Near this spot on King Edward Parade there's also a memorial clock tower, with a sign pointing to the Navy Museum at North Head.

We both went to North Head, at different times. My editor Chris explored the Navy Museum, and I had a look at the fortifications on top of North Head, which is actually a sort of mini-Gibraltar, complete with tunnels.

What the New Zealand naval flag (White Ensign) looks like up close

The smaller plaque under the main one commemorates the landing of the French at Devonport in 1827. It wasn't called Devonport then, of course. New Zealand ended up being taken over by Britain in 1840, but things could have gone the other way, in which case I suppose Devonport would have been called Nouvelle La Rochelle or something like that!

A small part of Devonport is French all the same, I notice. Presumably that's where the consul lives.

The museum is full of fascinating displays, including historical ones that muse on the paradox of Britain winning the Second World War and losing its empire soon afterwards. From before: —

And after: —

As for me, I scaled the heights of North Head to watch the sun come up on a late autumn morning this year.

There are a whole lot of derelict fortifications and guns, now turned into a sort of outdoor museum. These ones glow a rather unnatural pink in the morning light. There are glass windows in the gun ports now, so that you won't fall in.

Here's another emplacement, with Cheltenham Beach behind.

Another emplacement:

Some big guns:

An empty turret, where guns like these would have been when they were in use. A small plaque shows what things were actually like back in the day.

Some of the men who manned the guns:

I took a selfie beside some more archaeological ruins of the British Empire:

And made a quick movie:

My editor Chris also managed to get let into the Navy Base to have a look at its rather famous chapel of St Christopher (purely a coincidence). The following photographs were taken by a Navy photographer who accompanied Chris.

The round window is called the Helm Memorial Window. It's made out of the steering wheel of HMS Philomel, the first warship to be permanently based in New Zealand. The Window honours New Zealand ships and naval units which were damaged, lost, or suffered losses in World War II. The ones at the top have names typical of British ships (Neptune, Achilles and Leander) and crests, along with P.O.W. (prisoner of war), Fleet Air Arm (naval aviation) and D.E.M.S. (Defensively Equpped Merchant Ship, i.e., 'armed merchantman') while the ones below were ships with Māori names: Tui, Moa, Monowai, Puriri, Kahu and Kiwi. "England Expects . . ." is of course the famous order given by Lord Nelson at Trafalgar. HMS Dunedin is not in the window, as it had returned to Royal Navy Service when it was sunk in 1941.

The wooden scroll above which says ‘Fear God: Honour the King’’ was borne by the First World War battlecruiser HMS New Zealand, which fought at the Battle of Jutland, among other famous engagements. There is a photo of the scroll in place on the ship on this blog post, which also shows King George V in front of it. Here’s an old postcard of HMS New Zealand, which bore an excellent version of the then brand-new New Zealand coat of arms in which the female figure, Zealandia, looks less stiff than usual.

This image is from The Prow, a South Island historical society, but there are many versions of the same postcard online.

St Christophers’ is the place to get married if you are in the Royal New Zealand Navy or if you have ever served in it.

Here’s another major window, the one you see when you walk in the door.

Here are St Christopher, the chapel's namesake, and St Brandan, two watery saints and as such appropriate for a naval chapel.

On Youtube, there’s a version of Eternal Father, which Americans call the Navy Hymn, in which some images from St Christopher’s appear, as well as other references to Devonport. You can access it here.

Once colonisation began, the suburb acquired the rather Wild West-like name of Flagstaff to begin with, before its founders settled on Devonport. Honouring both names, the local free newspaper is called the Devonport Flagstaff.

But the original name for Devonport was, and is, is Te Hau Kapua, meaning the cloud-laden wind: a reference to Auckland’s puffy subtropical skies. The original Māori name for Mount Victoria is Takarunga, meaning ‘the hill standing above’. Since 2014 the hill is officially Takarunga / Mount Victoria. As for North Head, it is officially, since 2014, Maungauika / North Head, its old and now revived Māori name meaning Mountain of Uika, an ancestral hero.

Te Hau Kapua, in action over Takarunga / Mount Victoria

Devonport also has a new library with strong Māori themes.

Useful Resources:

An international library journal article on the Māori-themed library is here. A Department of Conservation page on Maungauika / North Head is here. And as for Devonport or Te Hau Kapua in general, the website visit Devonport is the one to go to. It includes a history trail which is “a must for history buffs,” apparently. And I think you can see why!

This post is referenced in my new book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand's Other Half, to be published very shortly.

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